Murder, She Wrote | The Nation


Murder, She Wrote

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In Wilson's book, where most infatuations blend into one another in an indistinguishable hodgepodge of torturous conquests, Hill is the one lover to emerge as a fully realized person. Highsmith was romantically prolific, and a biographer has to be judicious, but too many important girlfriends get lost in the "beautiful shadows," as it were, including Meaker. Wilson appreciates the importance of women in Highsmith's life--for example, he intuits that it was her obsession with a married woman, and not merely her growing disillusionment with things American, that led her to move to Europe in 1963. He even interviewed the daughter of the woman who unwittingly inspired Highsmith's pseudonymous lesbian 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (later published under the author's name, and retitled Carol). But he has a tendency to get mired in long, overwritten passages that establish historical background for readers to understand the world in which Highsmith lived. This is especially apparent in earlier chapters, where Wilson needlessly describes the New York sights young Highsmith may have seen, or popular books she may have read. He also goes to great lengths to rehash each of her novels and the ensuing critical response both in the United States and in Europe, book by book, critic by critic. A thorough researcher does not necessarily make for a discerning writer, though he does include plenty of necessary and delectably strange details about his subject, her penny-pinching (she drove nearly a hundred miles to save money on a jar of spaghetti sauce) and her fascination with snail-breeding (Highsmith had more than 300 live snails, becoming so fond of her little pets that she'd smuggle them--thirty at a time--under her breasts as she traveled between England and France).

About the Author

Kera Bolonik
Kera Bolonik's writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, Slate, the Forward and Bookforum, among others....

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Wilson excels, however, at evoking the author's frustration with the publishing industry and her reception here and in Europe. Highsmith experienced early success with the publication of her 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train, with a boost from Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted it to the screen the following year, hiring detective novelist Raymond Chandler to write the screenplay. Hitchcock's was ultimately a far tamer version of Highsmith's story: Hers featured both men carrying out a crisscross murder scheme; the filmmaker, opting for a more moralistic route, had only one man actually committing a murder.

Strangers put Highsmith on the map as a mystery novelist, but this was something of a curse, since she wanted to see her finely crafted stories and novels considered alongside Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus and Poe. Being trapped in a genre certainly kept her stories out of the publication in which she most longed to appear during her lifetime, The New Yorker (which published her story "The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn" posthumously, in 2002); instead, hers were regularly featured in publications like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Being a mystery writer also set Highsmith up to disappoint and confuse the general American reader, who didn't take kindly to the moral challenges she posed in her fiction. She was one of a handful of high-minded noir writers, like Chester Himes, David Goodis and Jim Thompson, who proved to be too dark to be appreciated in their own time by American readers, instead finding their audience in Europe. Highsmith consistently garnered praise from her critics on both sides of the Atlantic throughout her career for her rare insight into the criminal mind and her intricate plotting. But commercial success would almost always elude her, especially in Britain and the United States, where her books would rarely sell more than 9,000 copies. (The Ripley series was the exception, inspiring films by René Clément, Wim Wenders and Anthony Minghella.)

Highsmith wasn't about to let sales affect her literary vision. Writing was her life--not only a means to navigate the world but the very thing that got her out of bed in the morning, her escape from heartache and depression. She rarely sacrificed her industrious writing schedule, even when she was drinking heavily. Instead, she tried to change her luck by switching literary representation, which she did several times, from her first agent Margot Johnson, whom Wilson says she fired because "she believed she just wasn't working hard enough to sell her books and raise her advances," to Patricia Schartle at McIntosh & Otis in the United States and A.M. Heath in England, two agencies that worked together, representing Highsmith for more than twenty years. When Highsmith began to take an active role in managing her financial affairs later in life, she became obsessed with her earnings and decided she didn't want to pay their respective commissions. "The latter two agents take 5% each on German, Italian, Scandinavian, etc. sales, causing me to lose 20% instead of 10%," wrote Highsmith in a letter to her friend Alain Oulman. "With double taxation arriving or creeping, I cannot afford this."

Schartle was infuriated by the allegations that both McIntosh & Otis and A.M. Heath were fleecing Highsmith, and subsequently fired her client. Highsmith had already burned a number of bridges on both sides of the Atlantic with her paranoiac demands and stinginess, and had no one to represent her in the States or in Britain. She resolved to reassign all of her literary management over to Diogenes Verlag, her Swiss publisher, who to this day serves as the executor of her literary estate.

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